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just Once


Masterworks Broadway

Once upon a time it was easier to define and identify the typical "Broadway"/musical theatre sound and style. There were splashy showstoppers full of razzle-dazzle, big chorus numbers with the townspeople bursting onto the scene, sweeping ballads overflowing with sentiment and declarations of love or wishing for it, comedy bits, character pieces, something to inspire or get feet tapping, with a satisfying if predictable happy ending. Times have changed and Once is not that kind of musical. Those who haven't been exposed to its songs, many of which were heard earlier in its film incarnation, might hear this new album and never guess it's a Broadway cast recording. The disc of the musical, which has transferred from a smaller theatre in downtown Manhattan, could easily be taken to be a cousin of the downbeat, intimate confessional singer-songwriter recitals, with a few change-of-pace guest vocals thrown in. Sorrowful, tender, often haunting, without guile—but with catharsis that can be weepy or defiant, it has moments that are raw or riveting for listeners responsive to such reflections. Some will find that it drones—or drowns—in self-pity. The musical settings by Martin Lowe, who co-produced the CD with Steven Epstein, adds layers of mood and color, but doesn't overwhelm or upstage the delicacy and intimacy of the laments.

Those looking for polish and pith in songwriting craft will find more in the way of bare-bones honesty and a resistance to glibness or gloss. I find it at times lugubrious or thin and wispy and unsatisfying, but can't deny the spell it can cast musically, with an ethereal quality. Nor can I not be struck by the voices aching with harrowing hurt or innocent enchantment, engendering empathy. Although it is rare that the pain is blared, it's naked, a fresh wound in this story of an Irish singer-songwriter-guitarist still reeling from a break-up, channeling and chronicling the feelings in his songs. In this role, Steve Kazee's arresting voice is unabashedly vulnerable but shoring up its defenses with some brittleness. He calibrates the emotions of bitterness, regret, anger, and deep sadness which dance around each other and combine, sometimes coiled and simmering, sometimes released dart-like or gushing like a broken damn. The wounded bird has a lot of fight and fury in him. The other main character is played by Cristin Milioti, a supportive, gentle spirit. Her voice can be eerily birdlike and floating through the air. Also a musician (a pianist) impressed with the man's talent, she helps him put together a demo and they get to know each other partly through their intimate songs. With less armor and more warmth, but not over-radiating sunshine so as to force out the other character's storm clouds, she balances his edgier and volatile character. I don't find the performances or material fully engaging on all selections, but admire the low-key, non-slick approach and how the well of feelings and intensity distract me from lyric lines that seem lackluster in print. (Some repeat a lot, are quite plain or seem to mostly complain, or use very simple rhymes and may do so sparingly or inconsistently.) The Academy Award-winning, moody and mellow "Falling Slowly" is somewhat less compelling and interesting than other pieces, including some not in the film.

There's a rousing authentic Czechoslovakian folk song (group number) that enlivens things; the female protagonist is who the representative Czech is; in the male lead's work and some musical flavorings, we hear the Irish lilt and vigor. There's no doubt about his acknowledging feelings of hurt and resentment: "You won't disappoint me/ I can do that myself" he acknowledges in "Leave," which follows a mostly instrumental album-opener. While bluntness is blurted in the line "Ten years ago/ I fell in love with an Irish girl/ She took my heart/ But she went and screwed some guy she knew" in the brief "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy" (our hero fixes vacuum cleaners as a day job), things are more introspective or poetic elsewhere. In "Sleeping," the flip attitude is gone and the scars are raised in high relief as that broken heart is worn on the sleeve. Addressing the missed lover directly, he muses: "How am I supposed to live without you?/ A wrong word said in anger and you were gone ... It's all dust now on the shelf ... And where did you go?" It can be harrowing, even when one might be tempted (at least out of context) to wish they'd all stop whining and wailing. The songs are presented as songs (of a songwriter) rather than sung equivalent of interactive dialogue (aka "plot songs" or "book songs").

Glen Hansard and/or Markéta Irglová, who played the couple in the film, wrote most of the material, with some other collaborators on some tracks. In the theatre, there's additional music before the story proper (the play) begins, as audience members are allowed to wander about and interact; note that a few of these pieces are available on special editions from Barnes & Noble icon (two songs) and iTunes (one track). The standard 16-track CD is what was submitted for review. The actors in the show play their own instruments and in part it feels like a folk festival of alternately fragile and ferocious sensibilities flowing through the air, elusive and meandering but always close to the (often tremulous) heart. And when the instruments—lots of stringed instruments—are put aside for the a capella reprise of "Gold" (written by Fergus O'Farrell) it's all the more impactful and touching. Sensitive and searing, with songs that can be elusive or in your face, Once is at once dripping with mystique and boldly direct.

- Rob Lester

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